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Soon after Descartes embarked on the search for true and certain knowledge, philosophy shifted its focus from “being” (Ontology) to “knowing” (Epistemology). What can we know? This unassuming question boggled the great minds of philosophers in the modern era (15th-17thc.), proving itself far more complicated than it first appeared to them. As commonly thought, the world is nothing more than everything that the mind ought to know. The world is there, and the mind is bound to know it. But if one thinks deeper, as the philosophers did, the world “as we perceive it” might be totally different from the world “as it objectively is.” We, for example, see tall trees and their green leaves, taste sweet candies, or touch hot objects. But we ask: Are trees “in-themselves” really tall or do we only see them as tall? Are their leaves really green or is it only “our eyes” that see green? Are candies really sweet or is it only “our taste buds” that make them sweet? Are objects exposed to fire really hot or is it “our sense of touch” that projects them to be hot?
The more there are advances in the sciences, the less likely we admit that what we know are indeed true. The world is more than what it meets the eye. According to the physical sciences, the true nature of matter lies on how its atoms combine together to take a definite formation, and not on our individual perceptions of it. Man’s sensory organs perceive these atomic formations, and simultaneously create mental images of these objects. Thus the object of man’s knowledge are not the objects in themselves but his own mental representations or ideas of these objects. Now, how sure are we that our ideas give us a correct picture of the world?
John Locke (1632-1704), a British empiricist and political philosopher, was confident in saying that the mind can grasp, how crude it may be, the reality outside itself. Although for Locke the human mind cannot know directly the world, his ideas, which serve as link between the mind and reality, represent the world as it is. Yes, there is still a dichotomy between the knower and the object known, but the possibility of the non-existence of an external world and entrapment of man in his mind are implausible for Locke. Let us now see how Locke advanced these ideas.
What can we know according to Locke?
In his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke identified how far human understanding can extend its view. At the outset of his work, he humbly accepted the limits of human understanding saying that we can never achieve absolute certainty. Ultimately, Locke asserted that knowledge extends no farther than our ideas. But, as he enjoined us, this must not lead us to doubt the ability of our understanding in knowing the world. We know the world through our ideas that represent it, however crudely the representation may be.
In his Essay, Locke defined idea as “whatsoever the object of understanding when man thinks.” It is anything that the mind uses in the process of thinking, such as our imaginations, phantasms, notions, beliefs, and projections. Simply speaking, for Locke, we know through our ideas, and what we know are our ideas. Now, how do we acquire all these ideas?
How do we know according to Locke?
As an strict empiricist, Locke explains that we get all our ideas from our experiences, either through sensation or reflection. I know the idea of a “girl” because I already had encounters with a girl. If I did not encounter one, then I should have not known the idea of a girl. Could I know a girl even without encountering one, such that I know them since birth? For Locke, such is inconceivable. Thus, for him, to have innate ideas is impossible because it carries with it the vague suggestion that some ideas are imprinted in the mind since birth and are in no way acquired through experience. Nothing is known that does not pass through the senses.
Just because ideas are universal, it does not automatically make them innate. Locke asserts that universal ideas are still known through experience. For example, the universal moral principle that “we desire for happiness and dislike misery” is never known to us since birth, but was only revealed to us by experiencing life itself. The existence of universal truths is not evidence that we know them at birth. There is simply no connection between the two. This is also evident in the fact that idiots, children, and a great part of mankind do not know universal truths.
One of Locke’s intentions in rejecting innate ideas is the avoidance of authoritarianism and laziness of thought. To claim that everything comes from sense experience impels us to examine the foundations of knowledge. But believing in innate ideas impedes us from rediscovering the origins of knowledge.
In Book II of his Essay, Locke said that the mind, like a blank tablet (tabula rasa), is void of all ideas at birth, and it will be furnished with content only through sense experience and reflection of sense data. I know, for example, that “it is painful to get hit by a ball,” and I know this idea in the following manner: First, my senses are affected by an external object that is round, hard, orange, and something that gives pain. Through this “sense experience,” I acquire the simple ideas of round, hard, orange, and pain. These simple ideas are the building blocks of my knowledge. Then I reflect on these simple ideas, and concluded that the round, hard, orange object that hit me was a ball, and that I perceived pain when it hit me at a certain speed. When I finally make a resolution to dock whenever a speeding ball approaches me, I used my experience to arrive at this knowledge. The product of my reflection about all these simple ideas are complex ideas.
Moreover, unless one actually experiences the pain of getting hit by a ball, he will never know that idea. In the same way, all the other ideas and knowledge are known if and only they are experienced. A blind person can never know the idea of green no matter how much one explains it to him, because he can never experience the sight of green. For Locke, to know always means going back to experience itself.
Do the ideas represent the world accurately?
After a thorough examination of the origin of knowledge, Locke is still confronted with the important question of whether or not these ideas really give us an accurate picture of the external world. Ideas represent reality, but how well do they do so? In order to explain this, Locke gave his theory about primary and secondary qualities.
Qualities are those that have power to produce ideas. Shape, extension, motion, mass, color, taste, warmth, odor, and sound are qualities because they trigger the mind to create ideas. Some qualities, however, are utterly inseparable from the object itself. They really exist in the object and they exist even if the mind does not perceive them. Locke calls these qualities which are present in the object as primary qualities. Example of these qualities are shape, extension, motion, and mass. Whenever we perceive an object, these qualities are always present.
Some qualities, on the other, are dependent on “our” perception. These qualities produce ideas like color, warmth, taste, odor, sound, texture, and various sensations. In no way do they resemble the qualities of the objects themselves. Although the objects have the power to cause us to experience them, they do not exist in the objects themselves. The idea of sweetness, for example, is caused by how the particles of a lollipop trigger our sensation. Nonetheless, sweetness in itself does not exist in the lollipop, but it exists dependently with our senses. Locke called these qualities which produce various sensations as secondary qualities. Thus, there are primary qualities that exist in the objects themselves, and secondary qualities which are dependent on these primary qualities and our senses.
Furthermore, these qualities are properties of substances. Substances bear all primary qualities and create secondary qualities as the senses perceive them. Matter, which bears the physical qualities of sensible objects, is the first kind of substance. On the other, mind, which bears the activities of thinking, doubting, willing, sensing, and reflecting, is the second kind of substance. Now, substances compose reality; they are the reality. Unfortunately, what we know are just their qualities, and not the substances themselves. This is because substances elude human understanding. With this, Locke underscores the limitation of human knowledge.
Going back to the question of whether or not ideas accurately represent the external world, we could say, using Locke’s epistemological theory, that we know the objects in themselves, however meager that knowledge may be, through the ideas which are triggered by the objects’ primary qualities.
What did Locke say about human nature?
“Man… by nature are all free, equal, and independent… The only way whereby anyone can strip himself of his natural liberty and puts on the bonds of civil society is by agreeing with other men to join and to unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties and a greater security against any that are not of it.” (The Second Treatise of Government)
Aside from his epistemological theory, Locke is also known for his political theory. In the quotation above taken from his work The Second Treatise of Government, Locke gives us a picture of man’s natural state and the condition by which man enters a civil society. He says that man, by nature, possesses freedom to do things as he wills, and because of this freedom, he is equal with other men. In the state of nature, man has absolute freedom of choice. But to avoid inconveniences in his interaction with other men, he must enter into a compact which limits his freedom as prescribed by the terms of that compact. However, unlike Hobbes, Locke says that the sovereign ruler is accountable to his subjects, and the government’s main goal is to preserve, nurture, and protect the rights of its citizens.
Although they have stark differences, Thomas Hobbes’ and John Locke’s (political) philosophy also have striking similarities. For one, they make use of similar themes, such as “the state of nature,” “natural law,” “right of nature,” and “social contract,” in discussing their political theories. It is therefore important to distinguish the ideas of the two in order to know their respective tenets.
Unlike Thomas Hobbes, John Locke is firm in saying that man is naturally good and reasonable in his dealings with other men. In the “state of nature,” for example, he says that man follows the dictates of his reason, and, consequently, the laws of nature, which reason conforms to. Using reason, men discover their basic equality. This is very similar to Hobbes’ idea of the absence of natural authority amongst men; that the weakest can be at par with the strongest because anyone can be a threat to all. However, the original root of this equality is human liberty; being a threat to all is just secondary and not the real basis. As Locke clarifies, even if everyone is equal in the state of nature because of their absolute freedom of action, the state of nature is not necessarily a state of war. Rather, it is a state of peace, good-will, and mutual assistance. Even before man’s entrance to a government, reason and conscience exert an influence to his judgments. Using reason, man knows that he ought not to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or properties. Thus, for Locke, although it is true that in the state of nature, one is a judge for his own cause, it is not the case that man wages war against all.
What is the role of government in the social life of men?
“…the chief and the great end… of men’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property.”(The Second Treatise of Government)
In Locke’s statement above, he proposes that, by uniting and putting themselves under a government, men preserve their rights, thus their lives become more comfortable and peaceful as compared to the state of nature.
Moreover, contrary to the idea of Hobbes, Locke says that the sovereign ruler is not exempted from the norms of the government. He is still accountable for all his actions. The power of the sovereign is limited to the protection and preservation of the natural rights of the people. Man, for example, has the natural right to self-preservation. From this basic right comes his right to sustain his life through reasonable means. If the government fails to protect this basic right, then the people could resort to a justified rebellion.
Locke then advances the idea of a “limited government.” The power of the government is constricted to its task of securing and nurturing the rights of the people. The government is designed to make lives peaceful precisely because of this reason. Anything beyond this duty is a sign of an abuse of power.
Moreover, Locke uses the term “property” in two senses. In its first sense, property is the general name for “lives, liberty, and estates” of individuals. This is the inclusive sense of the term. In its second sense, on the other hand, property means the “product of one’s labor.” Thus in the quoted statement above, property is used in the first sense to mean anything that is present and owned by men.
Furthermore, Locke justifies the right to property (as a product of labor) by citing it as a necessary means in sustaining our lives. Before the emergence of civil societies, men toil the soils, which are not their own, in order to meet their needs. Their labor, however, transforms these publicly owned things in the state of nature into privately owned properties. Nonetheless, there is a limit to the amount of accumulated properties. According to Locke, it must just be enough to meet our needs, so that nothing is spoiled. The right to property is a natural right of man. This natural right is secured through a government.
Unlike Hobbes, Locke believes that the mutual consent of men to form a social contract does not result to an absolute sovereignty. For him, the intention of the subjects in mutually consenting to form a compact is the protection of their rights. This is effectively carried out by dividing the government into three powers, which are the legislative, executive, and the judicial, and by majority representation in the legislature. Moreover, it is not the sovereign that confers the rights to his citizens, as Hobbes believes, but these rights are naturally owned by the citizens, and must therefore be retained and respected by the sovereign. These rights are deduced from man’s nature, and they are not products of a sovereign’s freedom of choice.